… and now for something completely unrelated to electoral politics.
As many Feministe readers probably know, the Michigan Women’s Music Festival has been a source of controversy for almost two decades now, due to its policy of being a women’s space that does not officially allow trans people inside its gates. I used to be very interested in this debate, mostly because of the ideological implications: who gets to police the lines of gender? What exactly is at stake for this community, and for those excluded by it–both materially and symbolically? Is there a clear-cut answer as to how trans women differ from other women… physically, experientially, socially, spiritually?
(If you want a primer to all of this, I highly recommend Michelle Tea’s mega-essay, “Transmissions from Camp Trans” — although if you want to read the whole thing you’ll have to order a back issue of the Believer, unless anyone knows of a copy that’s available online?)
In discussion forums, most notably the message boards at Michfest.com, there have been dozens of different arguments advanced in the crucible of debates about “the policy.” They range from women’s safety (is it threatened by trans people? all trans people?) to body essentialism (how much do genitals matter? what if they’re made out of silicone?) to questioning the fundamental legitimacy of people’s identities, whether as “transgender” or as “women-born-women.” And when I say arguments, what I’m really referring to half the time are no-holds-barred flame wars characterized by utter frustration and contempt on both sides. (Not to mention some half-deranged trolls with ten sockpuppets.) Far too often, these debates have included some of the most derogatory and invalidating statements towards trans people–especially towards trans women–that I’ve ever seen anywhere, from anyone. And I’ve seen quite a bit in my day, believe me.
It’s really no wonder that most queer and/or trans folks I’ve known who used to feel like they had a stake in this discussion (because they identify as lesbians, dykes, queer women, trans, or multiple of the above) burnt out on it long ago. For trans people, it can be form of verbal self-abuse to even engage in a lot of the aforementioned discussions, and from what I’ve seen amongst peers, often linked to feelings of self-hatred or emotional masochism. Are you a trans person with an urge to read someone saying horrible things about you that’ll make you cringe? Check out the Michfest boards! Personally, I never participated directly and eventually became steadfastly neutral on the whole subject of “the policy.” I don’t really think it really matters that much how a yearly gathering of women polices its boundaries. Regardless of how regrettable their decision may be for building connections between women who need them, it’s really up to that community (including those who genuinely want to join it) to figure out how to run itself. Plus, the whole thing was just giving me a headache.
Still, I’ve been stuck for years with this nagging feeling that there’s something beneath all the vitriol and misunderstanding and clinging to positions like they’re life-rafts that will save us from the patriarchy. There’s some kind of important work being done in these stubborn grudge matches, in the minds of many women who read and write in these discussions. Like a very smart lady just said a few hours ago, “some of those rocks will be turned over, and some ugly shit is going to come out. Which will be painful, but necessary. Sunlight being the best disinfectant and all.”
Sometimes that nagging feeling I have gets validated by a real gem of insight popping up.
Over at Questioning Transphobia, Lisa reposted a piece written by Cicely that was originally written on the Michigan Women’s Music Festival message boards. It’s about how she changed her mind on the subject of the policy, and the process she went through in thinking about it, from feeling like non-trans women shouldn’t have to think about or confront the issues that trans women face all the way to concluding that the problem lies in the concept of “women-born-women space” itself.
She ends up asking herself a lot of very valid and probing questions like:
Is total exclusion of trans women from a festival celebrating the diversity of women an appropriate way to deal with the differences between cisexual and transexual women? After all, we accommodate every single one of our other differences, including those that impact dramatically and permanently on our life paths and often make it difficult for us to understand each other – differences like race, class or ability – all of which involve privilege or lack thereof.
One of the most interesting things that Cicely writes is that she started asking more of these questions as she came into contact with more viewpoints via the blogosphere, notably Alas, a Blog, where she started reading the thoughts of other people on the subject, including trans women. Having watched this debate rather quietly from the sidelines for many years, I have to say that the blogosphere has totally changed the debate and connected it to a whole lot more feminist thinkers than just various people who attend Michfest or the loose coalitions of trans people and allies who oppose the policy. It’s no longer possible to pretend, as you could five years ago, that everyone who disagrees with the policy are all “privileged, space-invading transgenders” and “young lesbians who are obsessed with trannyboys.” Even more interestingly, Cicely contrasts her experiences online with the few experiences she’d had in her everyday life with trans women:
I realised that in real life I have met exactly three trans women who I knew were trans, and spoken to none of them in any depth about their lives. On one occasion, which is now over a decade ago, I took my prejudices along with me, and when she and I (both of us lesbians and feminists) had a small political disagreement I privately considered that she had argued in a ‘male’ fashion, that she probably learned to believe in the rightness of her opinions as a male, and finally, that she’d got her university degree while she was a he, and possibly with a level of encouragement often reserved for the males in a family. I didn’t deny her current womanhood or her lesbianism, but I did consider her to be something I most definitely was not i.e. an ex man. My almost automatic response to the situation, because of my beliefs, was to silently ‘other’ and dismiss her, rather than just agree to disagree. I didn’t think I was wrong to do that at the time. It made sense to me. It doesn’t anymore.
This is really interesting, even beyond the moving quality of someone telling a story about how their opinions changed on a very emotional issue. Especially in the last few years, I’ve read many generalizations about trans women being aggressive, or entitled, or domineering; like Cicely, the authors of these accounts base their generalizations on an experience with one or two people. But like most any widespread population found across all walks of life, ethnicities, income levels, political ideologies, religiosn, generations, etc. it’s hard to really make any accurate generalizations about trans women as a whole. Especially since any of us might be interacting with trans people every day and just not realizing it! I tend to assume that I do all the time. Then Cicely really hits the nail on the head:
I no longer assume that trans children – female or male – receive gendered messages from society in an uncomplicated fashion. I no longer assume that a trans woman who transitions later in life was not a trans child. I no longer assume that because a trans girl or trans woman’s femaleness was/is not visible (and so also not ‘official’), it was/is not a female experience of the world. I no longer assume it’s appropriate to think of trans women generally as ex men, regardless of the lives they lived while being perceived as someone they were not. I no longer assume that every trans woman has benefitted in any meaningful way from having had a male body.
I have not seen evidence of specifically male ways of thinking and/or communicating among the many thoughtful, sensitive, articulate and feminist trans women I’ve had the pleasure of reading and learning from over the past two years. That has proven to be a nonsense.
This succinct yet deep analysis dives to the heart of a lot of the arguments around the Michfest policy. Once you get past the bio-essentialist debates (is it really a good or feminist idea to reduce women to “person with vagina?”) and the red-herring concerns about whether women will be safe with trans people around, the bogeyman slippery slope arguments (“any day now, a bunch of frat boys will show up pretending to be women!”) and the attacks on the very idea that anyone should transition at all, you’re left with one rather central issue. Trans women and non-trans women, almost by definition, have different experiences of infancy and childhood, treated differently by the world because we are all assigned to two different social classes.
But Cicely goes one step further and has the guts to ask, “but what does that mean for someone who experiences dissonance with their body and/or gender assignment?” I don’t want to sound too gushy, but it’s admirable to see someone deconstructing the way their own privilege has molded their thought processes. It’s not something you see every day. Definitely recommended reading.
It’s my opinion that if you accept that trans women are women, it’s not good enough to say trans women are too different, they make you uncomfortable, so you don’t want them in any particular women’s space. Anti-discrimination legislation isn’t designed to pander to people’s feelings of comfort. It’s designed precisely to challenge and even override them when they deny other people their equal rights. Asking or expecting individual trans women or all trans women as a group to agree to participate in discrimination against themselves (or agree that what they experience as discrimination actually isn’t), is not a reasonable request, and one which can never in practice be satisfied. Either this conflict will go on indefinitely, or it will be resolved by removal of the boundary.
I live in hope that the festival will go on, and become welcoming of trans women.
Although I’m not part of this community, I hope so too. If for no other reasing than the sake of stronger women’s communities everywhere, that grow an can reach out to help more women. Though the flame wars have felt like a thorn in the side of trans-related communities and discussions for many years, I really hope that the Michigan Women’s Music Festival community can eventually work through all of this and reach a place of healing. And that includes those petitioning to be a real part of that community and those who have been illicitly part of it for years under a “don’t ask don’t tell” type of policy, Thoughtful processes like Cicely’s make me think that all of that might actually be possible one day.